CAVE CREEK (3TV/CBS 5) -- The sounds of success emanate from a classroom at Horseshoe Trails Elementary school where fifth-graders are singing in Mandarin Chinese.

The students have been immersed in the language since kindergarten, and the benefits go well beyond what we hear.

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"We see much more refined problem-solving skills in these students," says Dr. Debbi Burdick, the superintendent of Cave Creek Unified School District.

"If you go to Cave Creek, you learn a world language starting in preschool all the way through high school," Burdick explained.

She believes specialized programs like language immersion help put Cave Creek Unified on the map for Arizona's top-performing school districts. Two-thirds of their campuses are listed as "A"-rated schools and the remaining third earn a "B" grade with the state.

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Burdick attributes those numbers to the quality of the education they provide.

"It's a private school education with a public school cost," she explains.

Arizona's Family crunched thousands of numbers from the Arizona Auditor General's Office and found another contributing factor to a district's success is teachers who have been around awhile. Cave Creek's teachers have more years in the classroom than the state's average.

"Our teachers are amazing. Our experienced teachers have learned how to work with the children, where we have an edge on what works and what may not work," Burdick said.

Keeping those veteran teachers is key because they're not paid as much as in other districts. She says Cave Creek Unified makes up for it by providing a great place to work.

"You may make a higher wage somewhere else, but you may not enjoy the camaraderie, the teamwork, the leadership at that place you work," Burdick said.

Teachers agree.

"I love it. I have a passion for teaching; I love working with the kids, so that's what keeps me here," says third-grade teacher Jessica Cresswell.

Cresswell has been in the classroom for eight years and says her experience makes a massive difference in helping students to learn.

"I think when I was brand new, I was given a run for my money. Teaching is no joke. And I think as I gained years of experience, I definitely learned tips and tricks that helped me help them learn a lot better," explained Cresswell.

We watched as she showed us the district's newest teaching method called "personalized learning," which helps kids stay focused and engaged.

Students rotate from station to station, choosing flexible seating options like the rocker or the bouncy ball and meet with the teacher in small groups.

"It's basically a way to reach every child," explains Cresswell. "Sometimes, it's hard to catch those students who fall through the cracks. Personalized learning does that. I can see where each student is at individually."

In the southeast Valley, our data lead us to another high performer, the Higley Unified School District in Gilbert.

Liz Holloway teaches seventh-graders at Cooley Middle School. She has 17 years in the classroom and knows what kids need when it comes to learning.

"Management is especially a big part, especially in middle school. They are just social social creatures, and so that's why I always try to make sure there's always a little bit of opportunity to talk in my classroom," says Holloway.

Like Cave Creek Unified, Higley has all "A"- and "B"-ranked schools.

The student-teacher ratio is a little better than the state average, which is another common factor we found among top performers in Arizona.

"We have an opportunity to really talk to the kids better, and I think when you have that rapport, you understand what's going to engage them more, and I think then you really need to reach their needs and are going to see more of those 'ah-ha moments,'" describes Holloway.

We know classroom size makes a difference.

Higley's superintendent, Dr. Mike Thomason, acknowledges families have so many choices when it comes to good schools. He says to compete they need to offer kids a wide range of options.

"In the HUSD, we know each student has different needs, different abilities, and different aspirations, so we have adopted a boutique educational experience for our students. So if you're interested in the arts, the athletics or academics, we have opportunities for you in every area," Thomason explained.

He believes a big part of his district's success also happens outside the classroom.

"We have students who are involved in activities other school districts don't have - esports. We have a wakeboarding and surfing program. We have top-notch football and basketball," Thomason said.

Not surprising, the vast majority of top-performing districts like Higley and Cave Creek are in affluent areas that fall well above the average poverty rate of districts throughout the state.

We reached out to every traditional public school district in Arizona and asked what they believe positively affects the overall success of their students.

By far the most popular answer was programs focused on the students.

A quality staff was a distant second, followed by specific class offerings.

Programs to mentor and support teachers and family involvement rounded out the top five answers from our survey.

Even at the top, there's not an even playing field.

"I would have to say, our community is absolutely incredible," said Thomason.

Outside contributions help make the difference in a lot of districts.

It affords them better access to technology, more sports teams, and more specialized programs.

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"The parents and businesses support Higley Unified School District above and beyond anything you could ever ask for," Thomason said.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Higley Unified received $411,000 in donations and fundraisers in 2015-2016, the most recent year available.

Heather Moore anchors the Primetime News at 8, 9 and 10 weeknights on 3TV. She regularly reports on issues important to Valley residents, so be sure to watch 3TV weeknights.

Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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